Reverend CEO (Quiktrak President )
STEVE WOODWARD THE OREGONIAN
(this is reprinted from the Oregonian, sent in by Debra Powers))
It's 10 minutes into the sermon, and the Rev. J.W. "Matt" Hennessee is just getting warmed up.
"The difference between attitude and God-itude," he declares, booming out the word "God," "is that attitude is written by you and Goditude is written by him." "Amen," murmurs the congregation at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in North Portland.
"Goditude," he thunders, "ain't worried about what you look like. Goditude is not worried about where you been. Goditude is not concerned about your family name or your education."
He towels off his perspiring face without missing a breath.
"Goditude," he shouts out, "is not concerned about what you got on. It's concerned about what you got in. Goditude is not worried about what you can't do. It's worried about what you can do."
What Matt Hennessee can do is preach.
But to call the Portland man just a preacher is like calling Leonardo da Vinci just a painter. Hennessee is a Renaissance man, who, against tough odds, has succeeded in both the religious and the secular worlds. Comfortable in the pulpit as associate pastor, the 44-year-old former foster child also has managed a city, a company, a department of an international corporation and a major state agency. He's sought after as a speaker and board member throughout the United States.
And he has no shortage of connections in high places.
Coretta Scott King calls him "my beloved son."
Condoleezza Rice calls him a friend.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski calls him a trusted adviser.
Despite his high-profile friends, he's hardly a household name in Oregon, even though he oversaw the state's workers' compensation reforms in the late 1980s and spent nearly nine years as a Nike manager. But his low profile may be rising with his appointment last August to the Portland Development Commission, as well as his recent work on Kulongoski's transition team.
"I listen to him very closely," the governor says.
Since 1999, Hennessee has been president and chief executive officer of Quiktrak, a growing Lake Oswego technology company that deals in a little known corner of finance called asset verification. He is one of the few African American chief executives in the tech world.
He is not the average Portland small-business manager. The week before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for example, he found himself escorting Rice, the president's national security adviser, to a White House dinner in honor of Mexico's President Vicente Fox. He has known Rice since 1998, when she gave the commencement speech at Westmont College, a Christian college in Santa Barbara, Calif., of which he is a board member.
"When she called me to ask me to join her, to be her escort at the state dinner, it just absolutely cracked me up," says Hennessee, who calls her by her nickname, Condi. "I said, 'Well, remember I live in Oregon, under Washington state, not under Washington, D.C. I man, there are so many people back there you can ask to do this.'
"I normally come by myself," Rice replied, "but the president wouldn't let me. He said, 'You've got to come with somebody. You're not coming by yourself. That's all there is to it.' "
Hennessee was awed by the experience.
"It was what I call a Cinderella time," he says. "You sort of go back to your room at the end of the day -- it's about midnight -- and you say, 'Man, did that really happen to me?' "
King family friendship What he treasures more than a White House dinner, however, is his close friendship with Coretta Scott King and her eldest daughter, Yolanda. Nearly every Martin Luther King Jr. Day, for more than 10 years, Hennessee has been by King's side as she marks the day in memory of her slain husband.
Yolanda King and Hennessee became friends in 1981, after she delivered a King day speech in Saginaw, Mich., where he was assistant city manager. About 10 years later, he found himself in Atlanta on Nike business. Yolanda invited him to the King house.
"She said, 'My mother's heard me talk about you for Lord knows how long, and she's wanted the opportunity to meet you. Would you be willing to come by?' To me, that was like the greatest thing in the world," says Hennessee, who memorized King's "I Have a Dream" speech at age 9.
"For me, it was letting her know that all my life, from the time I was 9 years old, when he was killed, to the time we met, I dreamed about a day like that."
Coretta Scott King said Hennessee has "extraordinary humanitarian spirit" and called him "a wonderful friend to the family."
"A remarkably warm, caring and giving person, he is one of those rare individuals of whom it is said 'he never met a stranger,' " she wrote.
Hennessee began life with the deck stacked against him. He was born in 1959 in Columbus, Ohio, to a 16-year-old mother. She gave him up to be a ward of the state, which placed him in a succession of two foster homes and an orphanage. He spent his first three years in braces to correct deformed hands and feet.
When the time came for him to go to college, he chose Oberlin College, a well-respected liberal arts college in Ohio.
An orphanage worker used a racial slur to tell Hennessee that African Americans don't have the right to attend Oberlin. Hennessee said he did not identify himself with that word and told him, "I'm going to Oberlin."
Life falls into place At college, things started going Hennessee's way.
Hennessee, who was enrolled in the college's education program, found himself one day addressing a class for pregnant teens, which was taught by the Oberlin city manager's wife in her home. The nervous young man told the girls his own story.
"Seventeen years ago," he began, "there was a young woman who was your age. . . ."
Tom Dalton, the city manager, recalls walking into the house and hearing a booming voice, Hennessee's, in the next room. Impressed with the young man, he offered him a job with the city.
"This kid was a teenager at that time, but he had a maturity well beyond his age," Dalton says.
Hennessee went on to become student body president at Oberlin College. Dalton went on to the city manager job in Saginaw, Mich.
Before Hennessee had even graduated, Dalton called and offered him the assistant city manager job in Saginaw.
Hennessee was 21 -- so young that Dalton was afraid opponents would try to scotch the job offer.
"You may be 21," Dalton recalls telling him, "but I'm going to start telling people you're 22."
By the time Hennessee arrived in Saginaw, the U.S. auto industry was in recession; General Motors was laying off thousands of workers. Saginaw's city government was forced to lay off hundreds -- and that task fell to Hennessee. The young man was so stressed by the prospect of putting people out of work that he developed hives. But by the time he left Saginaw for the city manager's job in Ypsilanti, Mich., Hennessee had learned the unpleasant art of closing fire stations and laying off unionized police officers and street crews.
Hennessee came to Oregon in 1988 to carry out another tough assignment: implementing workers' comp reform for then-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt and Kulongoski, who was the state's insurance commissioner. As administrator of the Oregon Workers' Compensation Division, Hennessee's task was to help reduce medical costs and litigation and get injured workers back on the job faster.
"You're talking about the guy who had to go around the state and get people to do things that are very difficult," Goldschmidt says. "But he doesn't leave a bruise on anybody."
A brush with death Ironically, five months after beginning the workers' comp job, Hennessee became one of his own workers' comp cases, after narrowly escaping death. As he drove one day to a meeting in Astoria, a 25-pound steel pipe fell off a truck in front of him and hurtled through the windshield. Hennessee, who had just turned to answer a question from his assistant, was slammed in the left side of his face. Seven weeks passed before he was back on the job full time. He underwent several more surgeries over the next two years.
Two years after arriving in Oregon, with reforms well under way and Goldschmidt soon to leave office, Hennessee looked for a new challenge. Goldschmidt recommended him to Nike, where the governor had once been a vice president. Nike hired him as a middle manager, charging him with helping retailers switch from paper orders to electronic orders.
Hennessee recalls his first lonely day at work at Nike. Only a week before, 300 cheering state employees had given him a congratulatory send-off. At Nike, a secretary who hadn't been told he was arriving pointed him toward an empty cubicle and the supply closet.
"It was vintage Nike," he says.
A friend at Nike lectured him. "If you care about the size of your office," he said, "if you care what your title is and stuff like that, then this is not the place for you."
Hennessee took the advice to heart. He set about learning, he says, about the power of brands, the importance of consistency, the value of measurement and the importance of the international world.
"What it did for me," he says, "is really change my whole mind-set: 'You really need to roll with this. This is a great opportunity for you to really rethink how you're approaching your job.' And it was. It was totally good for me."
But Hennessee never forgot that first day. Today, at Quiktrak, every new employee's first day is a celebration.
"He's a charmer," says Don Froomer, who founded Quiktrak with his brother, Greg. "He's very charismatic."
Hennessee says Quiktrak is the most exhilarating job he's ever had because, unlike his other jobs, the buck stops with him and him alone.
"One thing that's interesting," Greg Froomer says, "is that you shouldn't read into his demeanor that he's soft. He can get down and make some very tough decisions."
And he can preach a tough sermon -- the result of a ministry that goes back about 30 years, when he felt a call to service in the name of God. He studied religion, sociology and anthropology at Oberlin, and he attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
"He's absolutely a good preacher," says the Rev. James C.E. Faulkner, pastor of the St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church. "He does a great job for the Lord." Steve Woodward: 503-294-5134; firstname.lastname@example.org